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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Classic Abusurdist Play, "Ubu Roi" at the Cutting Ball - Ridiculous, Joyful, and Profound

Posted By on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 2:20 PM

Father Ubu (standing c, David Sinaiko)  in The Cutting Ball Theater's production of Ubu Roi. - PHOTO TATIANA KARPEKINA
  • Photo Tatiana Karpekina
  • Father Ubu (standing c, David Sinaiko) in The Cutting Ball Theater's production of Ubu Roi.

In 1896, when the play premiered in Paris, audiences rioted after the first word "Merderer." The author, Albert Jarry, made up a philosophy, pataphysics, (Paul McCartney referenced it in "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"). The story of a mad king taking over Poland, it loosely parodies "Macbeth," with references to other Shakespeare plays, including "Richard III", "A Winter's Tale," and "Hamlet."

With the Cutting Ball Theater's mission to produce "experimental new plays and re-visioned classics, with an emphasis on language and images," "Ubu Roi" was a natural fit. Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers, co-founders of the theater, had met Russian director Yury Urnov in Poland and wanted to work with him. First they looked at Russian plays, but then "Ubu Roi" came up, and Melrose, whose other translations include Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" and Eugène Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" did a translation of Jarry's play, trying to make it as faithful to the original as he could.

"People sometimes try to make it as shocking as they can," he said. "It caused a riot after the first word, so they end up going after what people's idea of what would be shocking today."

The translation had some challenges, Melrose said.

"On one hand, the language is very simple," he said. "Jarry started wring in while he was in school. But he was also a big fan of Rabelais, so there are lots of invented words and words smashed together."

Director Urnov loved what Melrose had done with the absurdist play.

"There's a balance of historical and contemporary," he said. "He makes it pronounceable and easy to understand."

In an unusual move, Urnov decided to set the play in a kitchen, using just about every item in the kitchen during the course of the play.

"I've seen so many absurdist plays, and some of them sort of seem fake to me," Urnov said. " I was thinking this play is extremely absurd and extremely realistic. It makes it closer to us today if it starts in the kitchen and then crazy things happen. The kitchen pretty much gets destroyed by the end of it."

The Cutting Ball's crew is up for the challenge.

"Everyone is so totally devoted to the process," Urnov said. "It's extremely complicated for both actors and the tech staff to put together this very heavy, crazy show this fast."

Scene from The Cutting Ball Theater's production of Ubu Roi. - PHOTO TATIANA KARPEKINA
  • Photo Tatiana Karpekina
  • Scene from The Cutting Ball Theater's production of Ubu Roi.

Melrose loves that this unconventional play has been set in a conventional setting.

"My favorite thing is the inventiveness of it," he said. "There's one scene I just adore where two people are talking in prison one either side of the bars and the two actors grab grills out of oven and hold them in front of their faces."

Urnov says while working on the play, he's being thinking about the absurdity of real life and the realism of the absurd. A world war seemed absurd when Jarry wrote the play - then a few decades later it became a reality.

Melrose says Jarry was always interested in the other side of the coin.

"His play has a kind of richness where Ubu is this cartoonish horrible monster, but he's also very lovable," he said. "Since the play was written we've had Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot, and Jarry was mocking that total quest for power and showing it as crude and satiric. So on one hand, this is the most silly play imaginable, but on the other, it's pretty profound."

Watch the director and translator talk about "Ubu Roi"

"Ubu Roi" opens January 31 and plays through February 23 at the Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor Street. Tickets are $15 - $50. For more information, please call 415-525-1205 or visit

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Emily Wilson


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